From the Hip: The Church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, Puebla

On the outskirts of the town of San Pablo Cholula, about 40 minutes from the City of Puebla, lies the Church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla.  It is not to be missed and photography is verboten inside.


There are two parts to my story today.  First, it is a mecca for several reasons.  The church is rendered in an architectural style called Indigenous Baroque — a native interpretation of the famed Rosary Chapel (Capilla de Rosario) of Puebla’s Templo de Santo Domingo.  Some also say it is an adaptation of Oaxaca’s famed Santo Domingo de Guzman church. In my opinion, Santo Domingo de Guzman is much tamer and Capilla de Rosario is a Spaniard’s dream.  The Tonantzintla interior is so fantastically sculpted, carved and adorned in gold that it is difficult to take your eyes off it.  It calls me back. That is my experience!

Exquisite Talavera and natural tile facade

Every square inch of wall and ceiling is covered in wood carved faces, none exactly like the other, some painted in cherubic white skin, others painted in darker native skin.  Eyes and faces look down and follow you, it seems.  It is difficult to believe that a spiritual deity is not omnipresent in this space.

The church proudly declares that it is not part of the archdiocese of Puebla and attends to its flock who follow the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, independently.  The interior is carefully guarded from negligent tourists who might take a photo with flash, therefore the rule is, No Cameras Allowed, at all.  Zero. Nada.  One can buy postcards of the interior ceiling, walls, and altar at a table by the entrance which does support the restoration. (Yes, I did that!)


When I visited for the first time in early March I was awestruck and took many photos of the exterior, stood at the entrance and tried to get as many clear interior shots as I could without luck.  Then, in a data transfer, I lost all my Puebla photos.  Perfect excuse for a return, YES?

Part Two: When I returned mid-week in late March with my sister, fortune called. We stumbled upon a mass in celebration of El Escapulario de La Virgen del Carmen. The church was packed.  A gaggle of pre-teen girls adorned in white lacy wedding-style dresses and mantillas, each wearing a Maria embroidered hang-tag, assembled in the church yard.  Not a Catholic, I thought it was a confirmation. I suppose it was, of sorts,  the symbolic commitment of young women to Jesus and eternal life.

We entered and stood in the back with our cameras.  There were many official church and family videographers and photographers, so I confess here that I took the chance to take a few interior shots from the hip myself.


For a spectacular cultural immersion photography adventure, join us for Day of the Dead Photography Expedition.  It starts October 28, 2012.

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